In the midst of major changes witnessed by the Texas Youth Commission during the last two years, Cherie Townsend, the agency’s executive director, sees some constants.
They include the dedication of the youth commission’s employees to help troubled young people make a better life for themselves, and the support of those efforts by communities like Brownwood.
“Most of the people who are drawn to this work want sincerely to make a difference in young people’s lives,” Townsend told members of the Brownwood Area Chamber of Commerce at their monthly luncheon Friday. “But we have to earn the public’s trust and credibility again.”
Having community support of the commission’s work is a vital part of the program, Townsend said.
“The youth commission has always had a strong relationship with Brownwood. The facility bears the name of a former superintendent here and commission executive director. It’s the Ron Jackson State Juvenile Correctional Com-plex.”
Jackson was the second superintendent of the Brownwood State School for Girls, serving from 1970 to 1973, when he moved to Austin as the agency’s executive director. He retired in 1993.
“The engagement and relationship with this community are outstanding, and I hope you will celebrate that,” Townsend said. “You have a great program here with a long-term relationship with the community.”
Townsend, who returned to the TYC last October after serving in other juvenile justice position in Arizona and Nevada, outlined the changes the commission has witnessed in the past two years. Among them, she said, has been a reduction in the number of new commitments from a high of 2,738 in 2006 to a projected total of 1,492 this year. That means most young people in the commission have been involved in felonies.
“We have fewer kids, but they’re really more complicated with lots of needs,” Townsend said.
Townsend said with the new TYC policy to place youth as close to their homes as possible, she doesn’t anticipate the that the two Brownwood units will be closed.
Two other “secure facilities” in West Texas are targeted for closure, Townsend said.
“There’s nothing between here and New Mexico,” she added.
Unit I of the Ron Jackson Complex is authorized for 328 full-time employees, with a $16.7 million annual budget, Townsend said. Unit II has 133 employees and a $5.4 million budget.
The units are undergoing national accreditation this fall, and they are expected to be the first facility to be accredited again in Texas, Townsend said.
“We have to judge what we do on how the kids are when they go back to their homes,” Townsend said. “We’re shifting from the way things were done before to a different way. The focus is on changing behavior.” Among the tools being used are an emphasis on positive forces and an individual’s assets, along with utilization of community resources.
Almost two-thirds of youth committed require specialized treatment, and Brownwood’s facilities provide programs in violent behavior, sexual behavior and chemical dependency, Townsend said. They also work some with mental health issues.
Changes in the way minimum lengths of stay are calculated have also been made, adding factors involving referrals to juvenile court and other assessments to the standard type of offense.
“It’s not all about time, but what changes can be made in your life,” Townsend said.
She offered statistics showing that the youth committed are 93 percent male, 44 percent Hispanic, 35 percent African-American and 20 percent Anglo. Forty percent said they are identified with gangs. The median age is 16, 36 percent qualify for special education, 36 percent are chemically dependent, 32 percent have serious mental health issues and 33 percent come from low-income families.